Every age of war has seen what Thomas Paine once called "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. " This war's batch has arrived, some would say. This week, a lawsuit was filed in...

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Every age of war has seen what Thomas Paine once called “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.” This war’s batch has arrived, some would say.

This week, a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by a handful of soldiers challenging the military’s “stop-loss” policy, by which soldiers’ tours of duty can be extended in wartime. The men say they didn’t sign up for extended tours in Iraq — it wasn’t in their contract. We’d say, let them go — and thanks for your service.

The plaintiffs’ complaint is based on allegations of breach of contract. Each of the soldiers signed up for a program called Try One, by which veterans can enlist in the National Guard for one year before they sign on for a longer commitment. All of them have seen their tours outlast the requisite year and charge that the extension is illegal, since they were not notified of it upon signing up.

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As a legal matter, their case is on shaky ground. The stop-loss policy says that “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, during any period members of a reserve component are serving on active duty… the president may suspend any provision of law relating to promotion, retirement or separation to any member of the armed forces who the president determines is essential to the national security of the United States.” [emphasis added].

But as a matter of policy, the enforcement of stop-loss is unwise. No good interest is served by commandeering soldiers who don’t want to be there, and the military has total discretion about whether to use the provision or not. As Sen. John McCain rightly said this week, keeping soldiers against their will is a real liability for morale, damaging recruitment and sowing disaffection.

The principle behind stop-loss is not without a rational basis. It was invoked by the first President Bush in the 1991 Gulf War and again by President Clinton. The Army rightly points out that stop-loss can increase the cohesion of units — a critical component of safety in the field and battle success.

But since the draft was ended in 1973, the U.S. has built a premier volunteer fighting force. Men and women of the armed forces are better-trained, more disciplined and more sophisticated than any that have come before. Other countries have military-service requirements — from France to North Korea. But few except Israel have come close to the level of professionalism that defines our fighting forces.

Nonetheless, making the transition from a peacetime military to wartime is not easy. Many of those who signed up in the early 1990s may have seen the Army as a good way to pay for college and have some adventures. Sept. 11, 2001, brought a new influx of recruits who were there to fight. Against all the current fuss, there’s still the fact that Iraq war veterans have higher re-enlistment rates than the military as whole.

We wouldn’t go so far as to say many pre-Sept. 11 soldiers balk at serving the true purpose of the organization they joined. Most haven’t. But the reluctant ones in the ranks are best seen as casualties of the transition from a military that spent most of its time training to one that has a fight on its hands, likely to continue for years in unpredictable ways.

“I was ready to retire, but I’m a soldier,” one 41-year-old sergeant major said. “Before we give these soldiers bad leadership, I’d rather stay in uniform and do the job.”

Critics in the galleries snipe knowingly that the Army is “dipping into personnel pools it seldom uses.” Huh? National Guard and Reserve units are not kept around at great expense as decorative troops, to referee fights at college football games or to bolster local economies. They’re kept in readiness and training exactly for times like this.

But that doesn’t mean the military shouldn’t be sensitive to practicalities, especially the practical advantage of mustering out on schedule those who really would rather be someplace else. True, in past wars the Army made good use of troops who served involuntarily (the “Greatest Generation” soft-focus notwithstanding). But today’s Army is a different beast from the mass armies of yore — less needy of bodies to fill out the ranks, more reliant on motivation, technical skills and professionalism.

It’s also a more patriotic organization than in some past eras. Though it’s a subject to step around gingerly, every poll suggests military members and their families disproportionately identify with the red half of America that supports the mission in Iraq.

In any case, it’s a military that operates strongly based on ideals as well as technical proficiency. That’s worth protecting even at the cost of letting some members go at a time when their help would be really useful.

Collin Levey writes Fridays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com